Category Archives: Rabbit Hole

Some stats documenting our Raskolnikov Syndrome

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky

Yeah, I’m on about my Raskolnikov Syndrome theory again. But hey, I haven’t mentioned it since April, so…

The theory is that people lose their minds — and often become shockingly violent — when they cut themselves off from other people. Ten years ago, I summarized it in part this way:

I’ve long had this theory that people who do truly horrendous things that Ordinary Decent People can’t fathom do them because they’ve actually entered another state of being that society, because it is society, can’t relate to…

You know, the way Raskolnikov did. Brilliant guy, but as he cut himself off from family and friends and sat in his grubby garret brooding on self-centered theories, he became capable of horrible things. Well, you know what he did. If you don’t, read the book. Everyone should. I suspect it’s what made Mel Brooks say, “My God, I’d love to smash into the casket of Dostoyevsky, grab that bony hand and scream at the remains, ‘Well done, you god-damn genius.’ ”

Anyway, it’s come up again because of this piece I read the other day in The Washington Post., headlined “Americans are choosing to be alone. Here’s why we should reverse that..”  It included some scary numbers, to me:

And now for the scarier news: Our social lives were withering dramatically before covid-19. Between 2014 and 2019, time spent with friends went down (and time spent alone went up) by more than it did during the pandemic.

According to the Census Bureau’s American Time Use Survey, the amount of time the average American spent with friends was stable, at 6½ hours per week, between 2010 and 2013. Then, in 2014, time spent with friends began to decline.

By 2019, the average American was spending only four hours per week with friends (a sharp, 37 percent decline from five years before). Social media, political polarization and new technologies all played a role in the drop. (It is notable that market penetration for smartphones crossed 50 percent in 2014.)

Covid then deepened this trend. During the pandemic, time with friends fell further — in 2021, the average American spent only two hours and 45 minutes a week with close friends (a 58 percent decline relative to 2010-2013)…

On average, Americans did not transfer that lost time to spouses, partners or children. Instead, they chose to be alone….

Take that, and combine it with the Rabbit Hole, and you have a dangerous situation, with a society that is dangerously alienated, and no longer understands what a fact is. And yeah, I’m talking about the 2016 election, and the “stop the steal” cult, but a lot of other stuff as well.

Look around at some of the bad craziness going on, and this helps explain it…

The Stupid Decade, and how it happened

Well, I just used up my last free read on The Atlantic — if I were to take out one more subscription, it might be that one, but I’ve really been overdoing it, so I’m holding myself back — and the piece was worth it.

One of y’all — was it Barry? — brought it to my attention the other day, and I just got around to reading the rest of it. The headline is, “WHY THE PAST 10 YEARS OF AMERICAN LIFE HAVE BEEN UNIQUELY STUPID.”

Which they have, as we all know. Or at least, all of us who were adults long enough before the last 10 years that we can tell the difference. If we were around that long, and really, truly paying attention, we know that a lot of really crazy stuff went down before the past 10 years, as a sort of a warmup, but we can tell that these last few have truly been stupid and yes, uniquely so.

Here’s a key bit that sort of sets up the piece. I include the subhed because always like to pat people on the back for citing Yeats. That poem has been profound since it was written, but more and more now the human race is living like we’re determined to act it out fully:

Things Fall Apart

Historically, civilizations have relied on shared blood, gods, and enemies to counteract the tendency to split apart as they grow. But what is it that holds together large and diverse secular democracies such as the United States and India, or, for that matter, modern Britain and France?

Social scientists have identified at least three major forces that collectively bind together successful democracies: social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions, and shared stories. Social media has weakened all three. To see how, we must understand how social media changed over time—and especially in the several years following 2009….

Yep, you see where it’s headed, right? We’re getting back to the Rabbit Hole.

And each time someone explores the Hole more thoroughly, I nod a little more, as it becomes clearer that this explains so much of what had been puzzling me since 2016.

You know that book I keep talking about, Sapiens? This piece makes similar observations, such as the fact that before all this stupidity, human history could be largely summed up by saying, “there is a direction to history and it is toward cooperation at larger scales.” Yep, there was. But this piece is about how things suddenly — extremely suddenly — went wrong.

I was rereading Sapiens a bit more today, and suddenly realized that Harari didn’t realize that this megatrend had hit a major snag. That’s because his book was written in 2011 (and came out in English in 2014). So the unique stupidity hadn’t kicked in yet. In fact, Jonathan Haidt, the author of this piece in The Atlantic, considers 2011 sort of the arguable “high point of techno-democratic optimism.” Then things fell apart.

Anyway, if you’re already with me on the whole Rabbit Hole thing, you don’t need to read all of this to be convinced — although you might enjoy it.

But I know some of you aren’t convinced yet, so I urge you to read the whole thing. Yeah, it’s more than 8,000 words, but as newsroom wags used to say about an overly long piece, it reads like 7,000….

So you’re saying it’s the Raskolnikov Syndrome? Maybe, but that doesn’t explain 2016

Georgy Taratorkin as Raskolnikov in a 1969 Russian film adaptation.

As you know, people have been bat-poop crazy lately. We’ve discussed this a good bit.

It’s complicated by the fact that we’re looking at two separate developments, and sort of running them together.

I’ve been searching ever since 2016, trying to understand how this country elected — to the presidency — someone who at any previous time in our nation’s history would have been laughed off the stage the first time he stood up and said “I’m running.” A guy who had been known as a famous doofus since the ’80s. Elected to be the most powerful person on the planet.

I still haven’t arrived, although I did feel I got a lot closer to the answer when I heard that “Rabbit Hole” podcast.

Over the last year or two — starting in 2020, the year we (at least for a little while), corrected the 2016 insanity — we’ve been talking a lot about something else, which is the deleterious effect of the pandemic on human behavior.

I just read another good, thoughtful piece on that in The Atlantic: “Why People Are Acting So Weird.” It begins:

Everyone is acting so weird! The most obvious recent weirdness was when Will Smith smacked Chris Rock at the Oscars. But if you look closely, people have been behaving badly on smaller stages for months now. Last week, a man was arrested after he punched a gate agent at the Atlanta airport. (The gate agent looked like he was about to punch back, until his female colleague, bless her soul, stood on some chairs and said “no” to the entire situation.) That wasn’t even the only viral asshole-on-a-plane video that week.

In February, people found ways to throw tantrums while skiing—skiing. In one viral video, a man slid around the chairlift-boarding area of a Canadian resort, one foot strapped into his snowboard as he flailed at security guards and refused to comply with a mask mandate. Separate footage shows a maskless man on a ski shuttle screaming, “There’s nobody wearing masks on any bus in this goddamn town!” before calling his fellow passenger a “liberal piece of shit” and storming off.

During the pandemic, disorderly, rude, and unhinged conduct seems to have caught on as much as bread baking and Bridgerton. Bad behavior of all kinds —everything from rudeness and carelessness to physical violence—has increased…

You see what happened there? As you will find if you read on, most of the piece is a discussion of what’s happened “during the pandemic.” But the political problem that predates the pandemic by four years comes up as well: “…before calling his fellow passenger a ‘liberal piece of shit’ and storming off.” Do you wonder who that guy voted for? I don’t. I mean, I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure I know.

So yeah, behavior has been pretty bad during COVID, but that doesn’t explain 2016.

However, I did pick up something interesting that I hadn’t though of before, in terms of explaining the pandemic craziness, and that’s why I’m posting this. It comes up here:

We’re social beings, and isolation is changing us

The pandemic loosened ties between people: Kids stopped going to school; their parents stopped going to work; parishioners stopped going to church; people stopped gathering, in general. Sociologists think all of this isolation shifted the way we behave. “We’re more likely to break rules when our bonds to society are weakened,” Robert Sampson, a Harvard sociologist who studies social disorder, told me. “When we become untethered, we tend to prioritize our own private interests over those of others or the public.”

The turn-of-the-20th-century scholar Émile Durkheim called this state anomie, or a lack of social norms that leads to lawlessness. “We are moral beings to the extent that we are social beings,” Durkheim wrote. In the past two years, we have stopped being social, and in many cases we have stopped being moral, too….

Though it’s been a lifesaving tool throughout the pandemic, mask wearing has likely made this problem worse. Just as it’s easier to scream at someone on Twitter than in real life, it’s easier to rage at a masked flight attendant than one whose face you can fully see. “You don’t really see a human being so much as you’re seeing someone masked,” Sampson said. Though one study found that face masks don’t dehumanize the wearer, another small experiment found that they do impair people’s ability to detect emotions….

I read that, and it hit me: Whoa! They mean the Raskolnikov Syndrome! Why didn’t I realize this before? After all, I’ve been thinking about it, and sometimes talking about it, since I was in college — although I don’t think I actually wrote about it until 2012. Here, in part, is how I set out the idea at that time:

I’ve long had this theory that people who do truly horrendous things that Ordinary Decent People can’t fathom do them because they’ve actually entered another state of being that society, because it is society, can’t relate to.

Quite simply, people like James Eagan Holmes are able to spend time planning a mass murder, prepare for it, gather guns and ammunition and explosives and body armor, and actually go to the intended scene of the crime and carry it out, without ever stopping and saying, “Hey, wait a minute — what am I doing?” because they’re not interacting enough with other human beings.

This allows their thoughts, unchecked, to wander off to strange places indeed — and stay there, without other people making social demands on them that call them back.

I think there’s a quality in the social space between people that assesses the ideas we have in our heads and tells us whether they are ideas worth having, or so far beyond the pale that we should stop thinking them. This vetting doesn’t have to be conscious; it’s not like you’re overtly throwing the idea out there and seeking feedback. I think that in your own mind, you constantly test ideas against what you believe the people around you would think of them, and it naturally affects how you regard the ideas yourself. I think this happens no matter how independent-minded you think you are, no matter how introverted in the Jungian sense. Unless, of course, you are a true sociopath. And I believe a lack of sufficient meaningful interaction with other people you care about plays a big factor in turning you into one of those.

Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov was the perfect case, fitting all the criteria we keep hearing about. Brilliant young mind, but he suffered a series of setbacks that embarrassed him and caused him to draw away from his friends. Living hundreds if not thousands of miles from his family, he was forced by lack of money to drop out of school. Rather than make money doing the translations his friend Razumikhin tried to throw his way, he fell to brooding in his ratty garret, or wandering alone through the crowded city, thinking — and not sharing his thoughts.

His murderous plan started with a provocative, if not quite mad, idea that he wrote an essay about — setting out the theory that extraordinary people who were destined to do extraordinary things for the world had a right, if not a duty, to step over the normal social rules and boundaries that restricted ordinary people. Had he been in contact with friends and family, they would have challenged him on this, as Razumikhin did late in the book, when he learned of the essay. Maybe they wouldn’t have changed his mind, in the abstract, but if he had been having dinner each night with his mother and sister, and going out for drinks regularly with Razumikhin, it would have been impossible for him to have carried it to the next level…

I explained further, including sharing the passage that “proved” the theory to me, and I’d love for you to go back and read the whole thing. But that’s the essence.

So yeah, the piece in The Atlantic is referring to a form of that Syndrome. Which is cool, and helpful. I feel like I understand the pandemic-behavior problem a bit better now.

This is particularly an eye-opener to me because, as an introvert, I haven’t minded the isolation of the last two years at all. I haven’t found it stressful, and in many ways — such as not going to an office every day (or at all, really) — I’ve seen it as pretty awesome.

But I had forgotten about my own theory about Raskolnikov. Now I get it.

But to repeat myself, that still doesn’t explain 2016, or the fact that so many millions of people did that again in 2020, and can’t wait to do it again in 2024, whether the pandemic is still affecting our lives or not.

So, I’ll have to keep looking. Because helpful as it is, “Rabbit Hole” doesn’t explain it all — does it?

 

 

 

 

 

 

DeMarco: A prescription for treating mental obesity

The Op-Ed Page

By Paul V. DeMarco
Guest Columnist

The root cause of America’s obesity epidemic and the rise of political polarization are linked. The former is due to unhealthy food choices, the latter to unhealthy media ones. A side effect of living in a developed country where food and media are inexpensive and widely available is that we consume too much of the insalubrious types of both.

Our news and opinion diet is often filled with transiently satisfying but non-nutritive calories, producing a mental obesity. We pick up our phones and succumb to the same temptation that a bakery case provides.

Certain habits put you at risk for physical obesity. If someone eats fast food frequently, regularly consumes high-calorie snacks, and rarely exercises, he or she is at high risk for being obese. Similarly, if someone watches long periods of cable news that offer a liberal or conservative bias, solidifies that bias by viewing social media with that same slant, and does not expend the mental energy to challenge himself or herself with other viewpoints, mental obesity is likely.

One unique difficulty in combatting mental obesity is that it is hard to recognize in ourselves. There is no scale for this type of obesity. Try this as a diagnostic tool: Pick any common policy disagreement and cogently argue it from the other side. If you are pro-life, explain why someone might rationally choose abortion. If you are pro-choice, explain why someone might rationally oppose it. The inability (or lack of desire) to accept that people with whom you disagree are not universally evil, crazy, stupid or un-American is a cardinal symptom.

Most importantly, what do we do about it? The treatment of physical and mental obesity is similar.

Portion Control

For most of our history, Americans received our news in aliquots: newspapers, radio news at the top of the hour, TV evening news. In my early adulthood in the 1980s, before cable news was ubiquitous, a common pattern was to read the morning paper, go the whole day without any interruption by current events, come home and read the evening paper and/or watch the evening news. We weren’t hounded by “breaking news” that was neither, or sent unsolicited push notifications. The wonder of finding the latest score or stock price comes with an invisible threat to our mental health if we aren’t conscientious internet consumers. We become angrier, less tolerant, and more partisan, the chronic diseases associated with wanton media overconsumption.

Consume the Rainbow

Healthy plates are often filled with color. The wholesome green of vegetables and the many colors of a fruit salad are indications of their goodness. If your information diet is monochrome, take heed.

When I give patients medical advice, it is often based on what I try to apply (albeit imperfectly) in my own life. My advice here will be the same. I still get the newsprint edition of the Florence Morning News (I’m going to pause for a moment to let my younger readers’ laughter quiet). It’s a nice way to ease into the daily news. The articles are usually right down the middle, written by local reporters or the Associated Press. Then, properly nourished, I will often listen to the conservative talk radio show, “Wake Up Carolina,” on the drive to work. The show’s host, former lieutenant governor Ken Ard, and I have many things in common. We are both are husbands and fathers, we love our families, and we care deeply about our neighbors in the Pee Dee. We occasionally text about the issues of the day and share a mutual respect. Our political opinions are often at odds. For example, we disagree completely about Anthony Fauci, whom I admire and whom Ken wants to fire.

Our disagreements are not always so stark. Sometimes we find common ground, as when he talks about the plight of America’s blue-collar workers. Do I slap my head in frustration some mornings? Yes, but that’s the point. Ken is an opinion commentator, who is not bound to journalistic standards. The fact that he has many faithful listeners who trust him makes him someone I want to hear. If you listen to someone with whom you agree completely, you have accomplished nothing by having your already formed opinion buttressed. It’s the mental equivalent of mindlessly eating a bag of chips.

I balance “Wake Up Carolina” with NPR. I check the Fox News app and then the CNN app, recognizing the biases of both those outlets. I have digital subscriptions to the Washington Post and The New York Times. My next purchase will be the Wall Street Journal. I’m only hesitating because it gets expensive after the first year and I’m not sure I’ll have time to read it. I listen to podcasts of all stripes, and enjoy the depth and nuance that can be conveyed in that format. And of course, when I want scintillating opinion pieces and erudite commentary, I come here.

If you were my obese patient, I’d have some gentle advice and encouragement for you. As your columnist, I also have some instruction. If you agree with me most of the time, I prescribe regular exposure to a more conservative columnist. If you read my column every month and our stances often differ, I’m pleased. Consider me informational broccoli. Now, treat yourself (briefly) to a news source with which you agree.

Paul DeMarco is a physician who resides in Marion, S.C. Reach him at pvdemarco@bellsouth.net. A version of this column (sadly without the reference to this blog) appeared in the Florence Morning News on 3/2/22.

No, it’s not about the cheese. But what IS it about?

Yesterday was January 6, and you know what that means, right? The Epiphany! Time to start putting away the Christmas decorations!

If you consume news the way I used to, you might think it means something else. A certain anniversary. News organizations have gone sort of nuts about anniversaries over the past 20 years or so. I mean, we were always kind of that way about Pearl Harbor Day or other historical dates, but news folks have gotten way more into it in recent years in the constant madness of filling the content beast. Seems like now, it’s always the first, or fifth, or 10th anniversary of something we are obliged to remember.

Not that what happened last year wasn’t significant. If this nation ceases to exist while some of us are still alive, we’ll look back on Jan. 6 as being the moment when everything changed. Never before in our history had it even been conceivable for actual American citizens to have attacked, trashed and briefly taken the citadel of our government. Sure, Andy Jackson’s supporters trashed the White House that time, but that was just a party, backwoods style. (That was significant, too, though. They were celebrating the greatest disaster in an American election that occurred before 2016. It was the preview of what our civilization would look like when it disintegrated.)

Of course, things had been changing for awhile before Jan. 6, 2021. And not just politically.

Note that last bit. Not just politically. As much of a disaster as Donald Trump was and is, he is not the problem. The problem is the phenomenon of which he is merely a prominent symptom.

Basically, the American people — and people around the world — had been going completely stark, raving mad for awhile.

We worry about COVID — and we should — but it seems that some kind of infection swept through our world several years back and caused some serious damage to our brains.

We’ve been seeing the evidence for some time, but I’d particularly like to call your attention to this piece that was in the NYT the other day. It’s been getting some attention; I see Jennifer Rubin wrote about it in the Post as well.

The headline was “A Nation on Hold Wants to Speak With a Manager.” The subhed was “In our anger-filled age, when people need to shop or travel or cope with mild disappointment they’re devolving into children.” By the way, if you click on the link as I intend you to do, I advise you to quickly scroll down to the main body of the piece, to reduce your exposure to the extremely irritating animated graphic at the top. As though we didn’t have enough things driving us over the edge.)

Here’s the lede anecdote, plus the nut graf (here’s hoping this falls within the range of Fair Use):

Nerves at the grocery store were already frayed, in the way of these things as the pandemic slouches toward its third year, when the customer arrived. He wanted Cambozola, a type of blue cheese. He had been cooped up for a long time. He scoured the dairy area; nothing. He flagged down an employee who also did not see the cheese. He demanded that she hunt in the back and look it up on the store computer. No luck.

And then he lost it, just another out-of-control member of the great chorus of American consumer outrage, 2021 style.

“Have you seen a man in his 60s have a full temper tantrum because we don’t have the expensive imported cheese he wants?” said the employee, Anna Luna, who described the mood at the store, in Minnesota, as “angry, confused and fearful.”

“You’re looking at someone and thinking, ‘I don’t think this is about the cheese.’”

It is a strange, uncertain moment, especially with Omicron tearing through the country. Things feel broken. The pandemic seems like a Möbius strip of bad news. Companies keep postponing back-to-the-office dates. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention keeps changing its rules. Political discord has calcified into political hatred. And when people have to meet each other in transactional settings — in stores, on airplanes, over the phone on customer-service calls — they are, in the words of Ms. Luna, “devolving into children.”…

Yep. The piece — all of which you should read — lists a lot of incidents like the one that was not really “about the cheese.”

If you look at the URL for the piece, you’ll see it includes “customer-service-pandemic-rage.” I think the problem predates the pandemic, just as it predates Trump, but there seems little doubt that, like Trump, COVID has helped bring it out.

Of course, it could just be the pandemic, and I’m just the wrong person to assess that. Whenever I read or hear about how horribly stressed people have been, I always have trouble identifying with it. There’s also the fact that since dairy is a deadly allergen to me — I think of what you call “cheese” as “spoiled bovine secretions” — I can’t imagine why someone would get in the car and drive to a store to buy someone anyway, whether it’s some special kind called “Cambozola” or not.

Yeah, I know if you’re a very young person who has career ambitions that can only be fulfilled at the office, and your spouse works too, and you have young children who may or may not be going to school tomorrow, this imposes certain stresses. But since none of those things describe me, I can’t feel it. And I know if you’ve lost someone to COVID, this is a horror of almost unimaginable proportions.

But if you don’t have any of those factors in your life — if you’d MUCH rather stay home than go to an office, see a movie in a crowd of people, attend a sporting event (shudder), eat out in a restaurant, or travel somewhere in an airliner (something that, honestly, was never fun in the healthiest of times, and which I could only make myself do because I deeply wanted to go to the place at the other end of the ordeal) — then it’s hard to understand this stuff.

And I especially can’t understand how someone my age (“a man in his 60s”) who should be past a lot of those stressors in life could be that desperate to eat a piece of cheese.

So it doesn’t work. And I’m left trying to understand what started all this.

Of course, as you know, I’ve been struggling with the challenge of creating a forum ruled by civility ever since I started blogging in 2005. And it gets harder every year. Lately, I notice that a lot of people have been getting as concerned about it as I have been.

Yesterday, I was talking with a thoughtful person who was trying to analyze the problem. How could someone go into a store or a commercial airliner or a public meeting and act this way? He offered this analogy: “If I enter your house, and you have a rule that I take off my shoes, I either take them off or leave,” he said. “It’s a matter of respect.”

Yes it is. And it immediately struck me that, as I look around me at the problem, it seems we’re living in a world that is absolutely crammed — all of a sudden — with people whose mamas didn’t raise them right.

So what happened?

Gail Collins and Bret Stephens take on the Rabbit Hole problem

You ever read “The Conversation,” a weekly opinion feature in The New York Times? It’s very good.

It just consists of two Times opinion columnists — former NYT Editorial Page Editor Gail Collins and former Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens — kicking around a number of issues of the day, and having fun doing it. Even more than that, enjoying each other’s company. (I use “company” loosely — I think what they’re doing is writing back and forth to each other via email or instant messaging. If they’re just talking and saying these things, they’re both even smarter than I take them to be.)

Even though one represents the “left,” and the other the “right.” More than that, they represent different generations — she is 28 years older.

Gail Collins

It helps that she is known for her sense of humor (not always a thing in great supply among former EPEs) and he is a particularly thoughtful never-Trumper. In other words, neither is a representative of what you see today screaming at each other from either end of the spectrum. She’s more of an old-school liberal than “woke.” He’s more of a Buckley-style thinking conservative than a troglodyte.

They do disagree. It’s just that they show us how civilized people disagree. That’s something we used to see all the time, but now it’s rare, and worth seeking out.

Anyway, I recommend the feature. I particularly enjoyed this week’s, in part because they touched upon the whole Rabbit Hole thing that I’ve spent so much time worrying about. An excerpt, as they were speaking of the collapse of consensus in the country:

Bret: Largely agree. There’s a small academic field called neurohistory, which uses neuroscience to help us better understand the distant past.

Gail: I love it when you expand my vocabulary. OK, “neurohistory” is my word for the day.

Bret: The field deserves more attention, because maybe the most important event of the past 20 years wasn’t how we changed the world, for better or worse. It’s that we created algorithms and digital platforms that scrambled our brains. The new technologies have shortened our attention spans, heightened our anxieties, made us more prone to depression and more in need of outside validation and left us less capable of patient reflection and also less interested in seeking out different points of view. It’s no accident that Trump’s favorite outlet was Twitter: The medium is perfect for people who think in spasms, speak in grunts, emote with insults and salute with hashtags.

Gail: Probably the biggest transformation since America got national mail service and people suddenly learned what folks in other parts of the country were really thinking….

A lot of people worry about whether our republic — or other Western-style liberal democracies — will survive. Well, this is the biggest reason it’s endangered. (You can make a case, of course, that the problem is rampant stupidity, but what we’re talking about here is the cause of that cognitive dysfunction.) Stephens takes it to another level, and questions the ability of our whole species to survive the Rabbit Hole, although he doesn’t use the specific term.

Bret Stephens

I think he’s right. We’re in a cognitive crisis. Technology has gotten way out ahead of our brains’ ability to evolve to deal with it constructively.

Ms. Collins disagrees, as is her wont. She basically says, Hey, kid, you don’t remember when things were really bad. After all, she remembers (better than I, since she’s eight years older) living in a country in which, for instance, racism actually was systemic.

But I think on this one Stephens has the stronger point. In any case, it’s enjoyable to watch while they kick it around, as usual. In days such as these, it’s balm for the soul to witness this sort of disagreement.

Bishop Barron talks about the Rabbit Hole problem

barron video

As I went walking today, I checked my phone but didn’t see any really good NYT podcasts — as you know, there are several of those I generally enjoy — and just wasn’t in the mood to catch up on the latest news via NPR One. Then I had an idea.

Having not gone physically to Mass in more than a year, we’ve experimented around with different approaches via the web. We’ve joined our own church’s Masses via Facebook, and lately we’ve been checking out the ones from the National Shrine in Washington. Since the ones we’ve watched — from the “Crypt Church” at the basilica — are shorter than what we’re used to (under 30 minutes), we’ve added on the practice of listening to that week’s sermon from Bishop Robert Barron. And I’ve really been impressed by them. Here’s a recent one.

So today I thought, “Doesn’t HE have a podcast?” Yes, he does, I found it. And I listened to this recent one, headlined “Catholics, Media Mobs, and the Culture of Contempt.” It’s also available in video form.

It was good. Basically, it tied together my two most persistent recent obsessions: The political/cultural divide between Catholics, and the Rabbit Hole.

As for the Catholic part… the bishop talked about how back in the double-naughts, when the New Atheism was so active online, he got some pretty fierce comments from the followers of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, et al. He found some of it pretty rough going.

But that was nothing compared to the flak he’s received lately from both sides of the Catholic culture war. He said he’d take the atheists any time over these fellow Catholics. The atheists were way nicer.

Then he got into what was causing this, the Rabbit Hole problem, although he didn’t call it that. He mentioned The Social Dilemma, which I’ve mentioned recently in that context. And he explained how the algorithms — in the interest of keeping you on the sites and in reach of their advertising — are written to pull you into the hole, deeper and deeper.

Anyway, whether you’re Catholic or not, I recommend the podcast. (Actually, it’s really a recent recorded virtual speech he gave.) That’s because he goes beyond wringing his hands over the Rabbit Hole the way I do. He offers advice on what to do about it, how to free yourself from it, and stop being such an a__hole (my bleeped word, not his). Of course, his solutions are grounded in the faith. If you don’t like that because you’re an unbeliever, go yell at the bishop about it. He likes that better than hearing from us crazy Catholics.

OK, I was going to mention some of my favorite parts of the speech, but I’m too tired right now. I’ll just give you this quote that comes right at five minutes in: “I’m talking about this toxic, poisonous, fetid quality, to much of the social media dialogue — and I’m sorry to say it, but to a lot of Catholic social media in particular.”

He had me at “fetid.” Other really good bits are at 28 minutes, 35 minutes, 37 minutes and 40 minutes.

Or, to put it more succinctly…

conspiracy

Y’all know how many words I’ve written lately to explain my epiphany that should have occurred to me years ago — how our descent into a post-truth society has been accelerated by technology that we all love, except when it’s making us insane.

I’ve written about insights gained from listening to “Rabbit Hole” or this other recent podcast, or watching “The Social Dilemma” or reading any of a number (too small a number) of articles I’ve run across.

That’s looking at it from satellite height, which is what I tend to do. The forest, not the trees so much.

But I was struck this morning while reading a piece in The Washington Post about one family, and how two daughters have been trying to pull their mother back from the precipice. It started like this:

In a country where disinformation was spreading like a disease, Celina Knippling resolved to administer facts to her mom like medicine­. She and her four siblings could do nothing about the lies that had spread outward from Washington since Election Day, or the violence it had provoked. But maybe they could do something to stop dangerous political fantasies and extremism from metastasizing within their family. Maybe they could do something about Claire….

Nice lede, but I’m mostly impressed by the first phrase:

In a country where disinformation was spreading like a disease…

Yep. Of course (he protested, seeking to defend himself with regard to the thousands of words he had written), that explains but one aspect of the “Rabbit Hole” problem. In fact, it’s one I can’t remember whether I’ve even touched on, because it’s one of so many. I definitely remember the point being made in my source material — I can picture this one guy in “The Social Dilemma” looking at the camera and explaining how much faster a lie travels around the world than facts do.

But you know, if that one thing were the whole problem, we’d still be in major trouble. First, we’re in a world in which every single person on the planet has more power to distribute ideas globally than any newspaper publisher who ever lived. (You remember newspapers, right? They were very big in the 20th century.) And to do it much, much faster. Instantaneously, even.

Second, people have become much more gullible than they were. For whatever reason, we’ve got millions of people who actually believe these two extraordinary, unlikely things: 1. That experienced, professional journalists who live by a code of accuracy and impartiality cannot be trusted to tell you they truth, ever; and 2. that you can completely believe, with a simplicity of childlike faith, what any idiot on YouTube tells you, as long as his patter is smooth, and he’s saying things you actually want to hear.

The lady in the story I read today fits that description completely. She and her husband (not her grown children’s father, this is the guy they blame for what’s happened to their mother) recently cut themselves off from reliable news source, and she finds the loonies like, say, Stefan Molyneux, very persuasive.

I urge you to read the story. But don’t expect a happy ending. This is a profoundly scary problem we’re dealing with, and it continues to tear us apart.

 

 

More on the stuff driving us crazy

Click on the image to listen to the podcast.

Click on the image to listen to the podcast.

More in my quest to increase awareness of, and prompt discussion about, the ways that social media and other apps that are desperate for our attention are driving America mad — and leading to such unprecedented dysfunction as the presidential election of 2016, and the recent attack on the U.S. Capitol…

Any of y’all listen to Kara Swisher’s podcast, Sway? She had a good one last week with Sasha Baron Cohen. Yeah, it had some fun Borat stuff in it, but the main focus (for me, anyway) was on his ongoing crusade against Facebook. I recommend listening to it. To give you some of the flavor, here’s an excerpt from a speech he gave on the subject more than a year ago:

A sewer of bigotry and vile conspiracy theories that threatens democracy and our planet – this cannot possibly be what the creators of the internet had in mind.

I believe it’s time for a fundamental rethink of social media and how it spreads hate, conspiracies and lies. Last month, however, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook delivered a major speech that, not surprisingly, warned against new laws and regulations on companies like his. Well, some of these arguments are simply absurd. Let’s count the ways….

You can read the whole speech here. And I recommend listening to the podcast — at the very least, you get to here Cohen speaking, for once, with his own North West London accent.

Cohen hasn’t cooled off on Zuckerberg since then. To quote a headline in The Hill right after the election, “Sacha Baron Cohen celebrates Trump loss, calls for Zuckerberg to go next: ‘One down, one to go’.”

That’s one thing. Here’s another…

Ross Douthat dug into the problem a bit in his column today:

No problem concerns journalists and press-watchers so much these days as the proliferation of conspiracy theories and misinformation on the internet. “We never confronted this level of conspiracy thinking in the U.S. previously,” Marty Baron, the former executive editor of The Washington Post, told Der Spiegel in a recent interview. His assumption, widely shared in our profession, is that the internet has forged an age of false belief, encouraged by social media companies and exploited by Donald Trump, that requires new thinking about how to win the battle for the truth.

Some of that new thinking leads to surprising places. For instance, my colleague Kevin Roose recently reported that some experts wish that the Biden administration would appoint a “reality czar” — a dystopian-sounding title, he acknowledged, for an official charged with coordinating anti-disinformation efforts — as “the tip of the spear for the federal government’s response to the reality crisis.”

Meanwhile, my fellow Opinion writer Charlie Warzel recently explored the work of the digital literacy expert Michael Caulfield, who argues that the usually laudable impulse toward critical thinking and investigation is actually the thing that most often leads online information-seekers astray. Instead of always going deeper, following arguments wherever they seem to lead, he suggests that internet users be taught to simplify: to check arguments quickly against mainstream sources, determine whether a given arguer is a plausible authority, and then move on if the person isn’t….

He went on to say he has his doubts about the “reality czar” thing. I’m with him there. Later in the piece he made some points some of us may also find dubious, but it’s an interesting piece, and I’m glad to see him address the problem…

The engaging uselessness of Pinterest

Pinterest thinks momentary flickers of interest define me.

Pinterest seems quite sure that momentary flickers of interest define me.

I never have time for this, but sometimes when I think I do — standing in line at the store or whatever — I’ll open the Pinterest app on my phone and see what it’s offering me now.

Pinterest is a contender for most useless social medium ever. It’s neck-and-neck with LinkedIn, only more fun.

I remember, years and years ago, when I first signed up for it, spending an hour or so scanning through the images being offered, telling myself I needed to do that in order to make the app “work.” I was letting it build a portrait of me and my interests, based on which images I “pinned,” or simply called up to look at better.

I found it an interesting, idle spectacle. Like watching spots of sunlight filter through the leaves of trees in a light breeze. Or watching whitecaps dance on the sea. Or maybe flames in a fireplace.

Actually, the flames make the best comparison, because you can change the patterns somewhat by poking at the logs. And that’s how Pinterest works.

If there’s a practical use for Pinterest, it escapes me. But I suppose it’s mostly harmless, although the mechanism I see in operation is the same as what has made other social media, and sites such as YouTube, such a threat to our reason and our society. As I’ve written here and here and here.

The algorithm is doing that same thing: Asking me to tell it — by “pinning,” or simply by spending time looking — what interests me. And then it says, “If you like that, you’ll love this.” And shows me more and more of the same thing.

Which can be sort of comical, because it leaps to such odd conclusions. Remember that post I wrote about posters I had on my bedroom walls as a kid? Probably not, since it only got two comments, one of them written by me. But I enjoyed writing it — actually, what I enjoyed more was searching the web for the actual images. And the one I played the biggest was the one of Steve McQueen riding a motorcycle on the set of “The Great Escape.” Which may have been my favorite poster. I know that that was my favorite movie when I was a kid.

Anyway, in searching for it, I must have looked on Pinterest. Anyway, it caused the algorithm to assume that I am obsessed with Steve McQueen, especially when he’s riding a motorcycle. I inadvertently reinforced the McQueen thing by pinning a pic or two from “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” which was a favorite show of mine when it was on, 1958-61.

Ever since then, any time I call up the Pinterest homepage, I’ll see five or 10 or more pics of McQueen in a minute of scrolling, often on a bike. They may go away if the app is momentarily distracted by some other assumed “obsession,” but they always come back eventually.

Hey, I like Steve McQueen. Just not that much.

Actually, though, I’m not seeing him much today. Today, the app thinks I’m crazy about flamenco dancers. That’s because lately I’ve been putting random black-and-white pictures on a wide variety of subjects into my “Images” folder. And taking a quick look at the app this morning, I saw this shot with a little girl in the background framing by a wide skirt being flourished by a dancer. I didn’t even notice what kind of dancer it was; I just liked the composition and sense of motion, and thought my daughter the dance teacher might like it.

So now it just knows I’m nuts about flamenco, and I’m getting flamenco dancers left, right and center — especially if they happen to have on polka-dot dresses. It even thinks I want to see a flamenco guitarist, and close-ups of castanets.

Steve McQueen is gone, for the moment.

I’m also getting a lot of pictures of Ernest Hemingway from his late, white-beard phase. This happened because one of my kids really liked cats, so I had pinned a shot of Hemingway with one of his famous Key West cats. Now he’s all over the place, with or without cats, because of that one picture. A little while ago it showed me one of him with a dog (see image below).

It’s fun to mess with the algorithms head like this, if you assume for a moment that it has a head. It takes practically nothing, the smallest gesture on my part, for it to make huge assumptions about what motivates and animates me. And it’s all so wonderfully superficial, because it’s just pictures — the content is so shallow! There’s virtually no text, and what little there is seems to play little role in the process.

The machine isn’t completely stupid. It’s right, for instance, to believe I like Calvin and Hobbes, and Norman Rockwell. And it has an inkling that it can always grab my attention with the kinds of pinup pictures that adorned the noses of warplanes in WWII. But that’s hardly a personality profile.

I’ve been fretting recently about what artificial intelligence is doing to our politics. But I find a few minutes with Pinterest reassuring. Look where it’s going now!, I tell myself. And for that moment, I’m less concerned about AI’s ability to take over the world. Yet, anyway…

EDITOR’S NOTE: Yeah, I know I wrote about this before, years ago. But thinking recently about what these algorithms were doing to our minds, I started playing with this medium again — just to watch the way it works — so I wrote about it again.

Pinterest 2

Mr. President, here’s what makes the ‘uncivil war’ so vicious

Guillaume

I wish my headline said, “Here’s how to end the uncivil war, Mr. President.” But I can’t say that, because I don’t know how to undo the damage.

But finally, after more than four years of bewilderment, I finally feel like I have a grip on what has caused the problem, and I’m not letting go. If I keep saying “Here it is!” enough, maybe someone else will see what to do about it, even if I don’t.

I’ve written about this in two posts now, here and here. In the second one, I mentioned having watched part of the documentary “The Social Dilemma,” and indicated I might say more about it when I’d seen it all. I finished watching it about a week ago, and yes, it certainly reinforced the epiphany I’ve been writing about. But I got distracted doing other things, and didn’t get to it.

Today (yesterday now, since I didn’t finish the post until Saturday), I’m reminded of the urgency by a several things I’ve read — items that point to the continued rapid descent of most of the country’s Republicans into madness. There’s the case of that deranged woman from Georgia, and the House GOP’s deep reluctance to deal with her. (The Republican leader is too busy running down to Florida to beg forgiveness of his master.) There are stories about polls, showing how most of that party’s adherents are still shockingly lost in their delusions. There was a Frank Bruni piece about how Marco Rubio — and anyone else with designs on the GOP nomination in 2024 — has utterly degraded himself in the pursuit of the support of his party’s conspiracy wing. And more.

How did close to half the country lose its grip on reality? Well, that’s what I’ve been talking about in those previous posts, and return to today.

There’s a great moment near the start of “The Social Dilemma” when several tech industry veterans who are deeply concerned about what’s going on are asked to answer the question, “What’s the problem?”… and each of these otherwise articulate people stops, and stares vacantly, and for a long moment, fails to come up with an answer.

It made me feel better, because these were expert people who were here to talk about it, and had trouble explaining what the problem was.

As I said in my first post on this subject, I’ve been familiar with the problems for years, and felt stupid speaking of an “epiphany” when the basic facts were so obvious:

I’ve commented on this before. Everyone has. And I was conscious of the cause of the problem. But recently, I came to realize it, to understand it, to grok it, more fully. And it was as though I hadn’t thought about these things before.

It happened first when I listened to a podcast series from several months ago, called “Rabbit Hole.” If you haven’t listened to it, I wish you would…

That podcast helped the points sink in, to where it suddenly hit me that this was the explanation of Trumpism, specifically the explanation of how such a large portion of the country — close to half — had completely lost connection with reality, becoming immune to evidence to an extent far beyond old cliches about “confirmation bias” and such.

It was happening because they inhabited separate realities, which seemed as real to them as any other. And they were prepared to go to pretty much any lengths to defend their delusions, as we saw demonstrated so dramatically on Jan. 6, and in the willingness of so many to ignore the implications of those events. (By the way, these processes don’t just distort the perceptions of Trump supporters. It’s just that with Trump, you had a figure emerge who reinforced the tendencies of Qanon believers, white supremacists, and other whackos by repeatedly telling them it was all true, and that it was not only OK, but virtuous to embraces such insanity. This unprecedented situation caused that particular, easily deluded, segment of the population to go completely off the rails.)

Those experts momentarily lost the ability to address the Problem because it has so many aspects, all interacting with each other. But to simplify, these two factors are generally at the core:

  1. First, the fact that so many people now get all of their information that explains politics and the world to them from, shall we say, “nontraditional sources.” At the same time, part of what those sources have brainwashed them to believe is that the “traditional sources” — ones that operate according to procedures and ethics that require that facts actually check out before being reported — are “fake news,” and not to be trusted. Yes, this is very obvious, and doesn’t really explain things until you get to the second point…
  2. The way the Web works when it is successful. Success depends on keeping your attention, so that attention can be sold to advertisers. Which is the way newspapers, television, radio and other media monetized themselves — except that the Web is astonishingly better at it. And there’s one aspect of the algorithms that make them succeed more than anything: The simple matter of showing you what you like (or tell you what you want to hear), and then showing you more of it, to the point that you never get to anything else.

Ultimately, you end up living in a completely different reality from others whose predilections, in concert with the algorithms, have herded them into their own, distinct — and often diametrically opposed — universes. (Again, this works on MSNBC watchers as well as on the Fox people. But Rachel Maddow isn’t working in tandem with a POTUS who does not give a damn what the truth is. So things don’t get nearly as crazy. But it does mean that as Trump’s base gets crazier, people on the left move farther and farther away from them, and the Trump base sees that disdain, and gets crazier.)

Eventually, the deliberative processes that are essential to our system of representative democracy break down. Representatives who know their constituencies have no points of agreement on facts with people who live in other constituencies cast aside evidence and make themselves immune to persuasion, lest they lose their seats. Debate in legislative bodies is pointless, because it’s not about trying to achieve productive synthesis with the views of members on the other side of the aisle; it’s simply about proving one’s purity in adhering to the “reality” in which most of one’s constituents live.

Back to the movie…

“The Social Dilemma” has a lot of flaws, the most obvious of them being dramatization. When it sticks to tech gurus talking about the problem, it’s great. When it uses actors to act out the problems, it gets kind of cheesy. Perhaps that keeps more people watching (hey, just like YouTube!) but it almost made me turn it off a number of times.

The dramatizations try to capitalize on parents’ concerns about their children’s Web addiction — a very serious problem that all parents should worry about, but not the reason I’m watching. There’s this fictional family of actors, and you watch one teenaged boy who starts out fairly rational gradually get seduced into extreme views, to the exclusion of everything else in his life.

Perhaps the cheesiest thing — but I understand that someone thought this would help us understand better the way the algorithms work — are these fantasy sequences in which you see the algorithms personified. This one actor appears as three different parts of the online code, and his three “characters” have conversations with each other about how they are manipulating the teenager, as they gradually assemble a more and more complete model of the kid as he spends more time online. These scenes are exceedingly creepy — and meant to be — and I finally figured out one reason why. The actor personifying the algorithm is the one who played “Pete” on “Mad Men.” Creepy is what this guy does. (You kind of wonder what happened to him along the way to give him a face like that.)

But eventually the film confronts the issues that interest me, the ones I’ve written about in those preceding posts. This initially happens when, out of the blue, the person being interviewed is Guillaume Chaslot (pictured above), the Frenchman who helped develop YouTube’s “recommendation” software — before he realized with horror what it was doing.

I recognized him when he used the phrase “rabbit hole” — because his was one of the more important voices heard in the podcast series of that name. In the podcast, it was described how two developments on YouTube led to the creation of conditions that lead people to become committed conspiracy adherents — first, the moment when YouTube started allowing long videos, entire talk shows and such, to be posted. Then, the development of the current “recommendation” system, which essentially says, “You liked that? You’ll love this,” which so easily pulls people deeper into the hole as they watch one whack job’s video, then another more extreme one, then one more extreme than that, and on and on…

Mind you, the experts — the elements of the film I prefer — all insist that there are no bad guys (although the environment thus created is a welcome mat to bad guys, such as Vladimir Putin, to step in and use it). The aims of the people making these separate realities possible are fairly innocuous. As one of the main talking heads explains, as we’re watching the creepy Petes manipulate the kid:

At a lot of these technology companies, there’s three main goals.

There’s the engagement goal: to drive up your usage, to keep you scrolling.

There’s the growth goal: to keep you coming back and inviting as many friends and getting them to invite more friends.

And then there’s the advertising goal: to make sure that, as all that’s happening, we’re making as much money as possible from advertising….

Hey, there’s nothing wrong with that, I can tell you as an old newspaperman (at least, that’s what the people on the business side kept telling me — and of course I noticed that when they stopped making money, everything that was important to me disappeared. Which was bad…). But when Web-based businesses do the same thing, we start seeing processes that humanity has never seen before, and which evolution has not equipped us to handle.

Anyway, I urge you to watch this film as well. Because I think it’s important in the extreme for all of us to understand how people come to accept the most unlikely-seeming propositions, and cling to them with religious fervor — fiercely resisting any attempt to argue them back to reason.

Because it’s tearing us apart.

There are plenty of other ways in which these problems — or at least bits and pieces of them — are being examined. I was listening to a podcast yesterday in which a New York Times reporter who watched Qanon chats happening during the Inauguration on Jan. 20, with the true believers assuring each other that at any second, Trump would declare martial law and stop the “steal.” Did they wake up when it didn’t happen? Some did. Others told themselves they had simply misinterpreted Q’s prophesies. It’s an interesting examination of effects, if not causes.

Or the piece I read in the NYT this morning headlined “The Coup We Are Not Talking About.” The writer approaches the same problems from a different direction, that of the development of “surveillance capitalism.” I think it’s the wrong direction, but perhaps it’s because some of the connections he makes are unconvincing. But maybe he made a better case in his book on the same subject. Anyway, he touches on the problems I’m on about, although in the service of his thesis:

The third stage, which we are living through now, introduces epistemic chaos caused by the profit-driven algorithmic amplification, dissemination and microtargeting of corrupt information, much of it produced by coordinated schemes of disinformation. Its effects are felt in the real world, where they splinter shared reality, poison social discourse, paralyze democratic politics and sometimes instigate violence and death.

Yeah, he uses the word “epistemic” a lot. And in other ways, he fails to express himself with simple clarity. Kind of made me more sympathetic to the cheesy dramatizations of “The Social Dilemma.” At least they were trying to reach people outside of academia.

But hey, if it leads you to understand it better, try that approach. Because we all need to come to understand it.

And do something about it. Again, I don’t know what to do, what with the toothpaste being fully out of the tube and everyone slathering themselves with it (kind of overdid that metaphor, didn’t I?). But I figure we need a diagnosis before someone comes up with the cure.

By the way, to head off certain obvious objections… before someone cries, “you’re acting like things were fine before this,” allow me to point out the obvious fact that I am not. As I have documented over and over in recent decades, things have been getting nasty in our politics for some time. There have been a number of milestones of our division into tribes that despise each other, and won’t listen to each other, thereby making the function of a deliberative form of government increasingly impossible. You could point to the emergence of negative campaigning in 1982 (which helped to produce the likes of Lee Atwater and his acolyte Karl Rove), or the moment in late 1992 when I first saw a new “Don’t Blame Me; I Voted Republican” sticker on a car before Bill Clinton was even inaugurated. Or Democratic lunacy over Clinton’s impeachment, leading them to defend the indefensible — or, two years later, their claims (very civil, nonviolent and short-lived claims, as opposed to what we’ve seen in recent days) in 2000 that the election was “stolen.” Or for that matter, BDS. Or the rise of the Tea Party or the Freedom Caucus, and the maniacal determination to stop anything Barack Obama tried to do — or, failing that, to undo it. (Remember the bizarre spectacle of all those utterly vain votes to “repeal Obamacare?”)

All before Trump. But not all before this phenomenon that I’m talking about, which certainly played a role in the things we saw in the earlier part of this past decade. In any case, this new problem, or set of problems, landed in a nasty partisan environment, and then exponentially accelerated the sickness, with a twist.

I could say a lot more, but at well over 2,000 words, I’d better stop….

creepy Pete

Creepy Pete in triplicate, manipulating the kid.

 

A continuation of the pattern

social madness

Here’s a follow-up to my previous post, “Millions of separate realities, destroying our common world.

I’m reading more and more of this stuff about how the way TOO many people consume the internet, and get consumed by it. Specifically, how they get their minds hopelessly warped by a couple of the standard features of social media and other web sites and services — the way these media keep showing you more stuff like what you seem to like, and — in this piece — the way the reinforcement of others (likes, retweets, shares, etc.) seduces people into insane new “realities.”

Here’s another item: A piece from the NYT headlined, “They Used to Post Selfies. Now They’re Trying to Reverse the Election.” The subhed says, “Right-wing influencers embraced extremist views, and Facebook rewarded them.”

This piece doesn’t make many broad observations about these phenomena; it mostly simply tells the story of how several individuals got sucked in. You’ll note the commonalities. The one place where the item touches upon the consistent themes is here:

He’s not alone. Facebook’s algorithms have coaxed many people into sharing more extreme views on the platform — rewarding them with likes and shares for posts on subjects like election fraud conspiracies, Covid-19 denialism and anti-vaccination rhetoric. We reviewed the public post histories for dozens of active Facebook users in these spaces. Many, like Mr. McGee, transformed seemingly overnight. A decade ago, their online personas looked nothing like their presences today.

A journey through their feeds offers a glimpse of how Facebook rewards exaggerations and lies.

But the rewards are trivial compared with the costs: The influencers amass followers, enhance their reputations, solicit occasional donations and maybe sell a few T-shirts. The rest of us are left with democracy buckling under the weight of citizens living an alternate reality….

Yeah, as I said the other day, I know this stuff isn’t new. We knew how the Web worked. You knew it; I knew it. But as I also said before, something just finally clicked recently when I was listening to “Rabbit Hole,” and for the first time in these last few years, I got Trumpism. I finally really saw how these people had become so warped, and so immune to facts and reason. What we’re seeing couldn’t have happened this way in any other time.

And frankly, I don’t know how we’re going to reverse this problem — a problem affecting people’s perception across the political spectrum (as I say, I know I’m vulnerable to it, too), but manifesting itself most threateningly among Trump followers. They’re the big problem now. (As I type this, I keep getting indications that there are people walking about downtown Columbia with semiautomatic weapons. There have been arrests. I might be writing more about it later, but I hope not. I hope the problem fades away…)

I don’t see how the toothpaste gets back in the tube, and people get sane again.

But I’m going to keep pointing out these glimpses of the problem as I encounter them. As I think I mentioned, I watched part of “The Social Dilemma” the other night. When I finish it, I’ll probably post about that, too. It starts from a perspective different from mine (such as worrying about addiction to social media, particularly among kids), but also gets into the problems I’m talking about…

Millions of separate realities, destroying our common world

This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for weeks, but haven’t had the time, because it would be so involved. But I think I’ll throw out a few thoughts about it, and see if y’all take it up, and then add to the conversation as we go.

I’m prompted to go ahead and do so by a piece Jennifer Rubin had in The Washington Post today. It’s headlined, “We must end the post-truth society.” That’s fairly self-explanatory. It deals with a problem we all know exists. And in this case, she’s dealing not only with the grossly destructive tendency of Trump supporters to believe his lies, but other aspects we see in our culture today, such as all the nonsense about the “war on Christmas.”

All fairly obvious, as I said. We now live in a time in which people utterly reject Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s dictum, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” (He wrote it in a column in 1983, although it is apparently based on something James R. Schlesinger had said previously.) When he said it, people across the political spectrum would have nodded, because it’s so obviously true.

But not now. And the word “entitled” is particularly significant here. People out there really, truly think they are entitled to their own facts. After all, they dwell in a universe in which their belief in such “facts” is fully supported and reinforced.A_separate_reality

I’ve commented on this before. Everyone has. And I was conscious of the cause of the problem. But recently, I came to realize it, to understand it, to grok it, more fully. And it was as though I hadn’t thought about these things before.

It happened first when I listened to a podcast series from several months ago, called “Rabbit Hole.” If you haven’t listened to it, I wish you would — assuming The New York Times allows you to do so. (Since I’m a subscriber, I’m never sure what is available to non-subscribers.) It’s in eight parts. The most compelling are the first few, which deal in great detail with what happened to a young man named Caleb.

Caleb is a guy who initially perceived reality in a fairly “normal” way (judged from the perspective of my own reality), even though he was having a bit of trouble finding his way in the world I know. Then he got addicted to YouTube. He started watching it most of his waking hours. After he got a job that allowed him to listen to earbuds while working, he did it (or at least listened to it) ALL of his waking hours.

Meanwhile, YouTube was growing and refining its product. They were making the artificial intelligence that underlies its operation smarter and smarter, and better at constantly showing you more of what interests you. We’re all familiar with this, and I suppose that mostly, we appreciate it. It’s nice when I go to listen, say, to the Turtles play “Happy Together,” and YouTube suggests a video I had never seen of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” (Which it may or may not do for you in your reality.) I end up wasting time, but it’s enjoyable.

One day in late 2014, YouTube recommended  to Caleb a self-help video by Stefan Molyneux, a self-styled “anarcho-capitalist” who also had a political agenda. He liked what he heard; it seemed to speak particularly relevantly to a confused young man. So YouTube showed him similar things. And more similar things. And it got more and more out there, more and more into the terrain of, as the NYT put it, “conspiracy theories, misogyny and racism.” It essentially said to him, over and over, “Oh, you liked that? Then you’ll love this…”

It became his reality. His only reality, since he had no other sources of information about the world. (He didn’t make time for any other sources.) And he got in deeper and deeper. How this happened is charted quite precisely, because Caleb gave the Times access to his video-watching history. They could trace his descent into his own tailor-made madness clip by clip, hour by hour, day after day. For years.

It’s really something to listen to.

Of course, this was just Caleb’s reality — his, and that of others who were absorbed by the increasingly weird things that he listened to and was shaped by. Each individual, of course, would have a slightly different experience, while at the same time becoming members of new, bogus “communities” of people with similar beliefs in this or that area.

I mentioned this podcast, and recommended it, to friends, who recommended in turn that I go watch “The Great Hack” on Netflix. It examined the same phenomenon from a different angle, the Cambridge Analytica scandal, “in which the personal data of millions of Facebook users were acquired without their consent… predominantly to be used for political advertising.” Data that reflected you through your online habits, using an app called “thisisyourdigitallife.” I recommend that, too. Even if you don’t find it enlightening, at least the graphic effects are cool (such as a person walking down a crowded city street, while bits of data are shown flowing up from every smartphone he passes). Or I thought so.

I’d always been concerned about the thing that was working on Caleb. Back in the 90s, when I was first exploring the Web, I saw that a lot of sites — including newspapers, such as The Wall Street Journal — would invite you to create your own, personalized interface. “Mywsj.com,” or whatever. I found this disturbing, especially when newspapers did it. But I confess I didn’t see how bad things would get. My objection was simply that the point of a newspaper is to provide a community, or a state or a nation with a common set of information about what’s going on — something that in a free country will inevitably lead to fierce debates about what to do in light of the facts, but at least everyone was starting from a common set of facts, a common perception of reality, which at least provided some hope of an arrival at a rational course of action. Facts collected and passed on by professionals with a quasi-religious ethic of accuracy and impartiality, let me add, and curated by editors who had over the years demonstrated skill and insight into current events. (Now watch all the self-appointed media critics go ballistic on that one. Hey, it wasn’t perfect, but man was it superior to what we have now.)

To be a fully prepared citizen, capable of contributing constructively to the public conversation, you needed to see ALL the news, not just the bits that tickled your personal fancy. You needed a sense of the fullness of what was going on.

Now, we have separate realities, millions of them, curated by algorithms to tell us what we want to hear (as opposed to editors, who tended to irritate all of us with the unwelcome information they shared). Everyone on the planet is now an editor and publisher, with power the old-school professionals couldn’t dream of: Each person is able to cast out his or her versions of reality to the entire world, instantaneously. No matter how well- or ill-considered their perceptions are. And each person is informed by sources such as these — the particular ones that each person chooses, or has chosen for him or her by the algorithms.

More than 40 years ago, I enjoyed Carlos Castaneda’s series of books about his apprenticeship under the Yaqui Indian shaman called Don Juan, including a volume titled A Separate Reality. It was fascinating to read of his adventures in that separate universe, and enjoyable (rather than threatening) because I lived in the safe, mundane reality with most people. Castaneda’s universe was shaped by not just Don Juan’s tutelage, but a variety of hallucinogenic drugs. Which I avoided, satisfied simply to read about it. It was a nice escape.

But that was amateur hour compared to what surrounds us today. There are millions of separate realities — one shaped separately for each of us. And some of them are truly wild. Worse, they have rendered any sort of consensus-forming through our system of representative democracy practically impossible.

And that’s how you get things like the mob attacking the Capitol last week. A mob of people absolutely convinced that they were “patriots” saving the republic from something that threatened it. Because that’s the way it is in their respective separate realities.

It’s the Trump brand of reality that’s currently wreaking havoc on our country, appealing to each adherent in a different, personalized way. But of course there are billions of others around the globe.

I’m sort of wary of my own, and perhaps I should be even warier. Just the other day, after the failed revolution, I was noticing how everyone seemed to agree with me about what had happened, more or less, on Twitter. (Which, if you’ve spent decades as an editor fielding reader complaints, causes you to get suspicious.) This happens because they are brought together in a reality shaped by the people and institutional sources I have chosen to follow, and those who have chosen to follow me.

But I’m simultaneously aware that, despite the shocking violence last week, which led even Mike Pence and Mitch McConnell to go ahead and certify Joe’s election (something that would have been utterly unremarkable — would in fact not even have been prominently covered — in the world in which these separate realities did not yet exist), these views are not universally shared. It’s not just the abomination of Joe Wilson and the other members who voted against confirming the election. The almost half of the country that voted for Trump seems to be spread along a vast spectrum, from your Mitt Romney types to your Ted Cruzes. And they have all sorts of verdicts on events, shaped by their distinct online interactions.

Each and every one in his own, separate universe, shaped by its own separate facts. To which he is quite certain he is entitled….